In my last post on writing in omniscient, I didn’t want to get into talking about POV transitions, since I thought the topic deserved its own post. There are plenty of articles out there on how to avoid head hopping, so I won’t get into that. Instead I’ll focus on ‘zooming in’ from your omniscient narrator to a ‘close’ third—a third person POV that feels like first. (Take a story written in first person, cross out I, replace with he/she, essentially.)
If you want more control over your transitions, it’s important to understand narrative distance, or how deeply the narrator penetrates the minds of the characters. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction gives us the classic example of it in a sliding scale:
1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
3. Henry hated snowstorms.
4. God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.
#1. There’s a great deal of distance between the narrator and the large man stepping out of a doorway. We have no idea what the large man is thinking or feeling. Without a name, we don’t even know whether he’s a central character.
#2. “Henry J. Warburton” sounds formal, like a name on a business card. At least now we know he’s the main character. We get some sense of what he’s thinking; he doesn’t “care for” snowstorms. A bit vague, but at least we know his opinion of the weather, for what it’s worth.
#3. Now it’s just informal ‘Henry’. Henry “hates” snowstorms—stronger language, more opinionated. From this sentence alone, we can’t tell whose POV this is. Is the omni narrator reporting Henry’s feelings about snowstorms or are we in Henry’s thoughts? It’s ambiguous.
#4. Now it’s clear we’re in Henry’s mind. Technically when you’re writing in omniscient, the omniscient narrator (O.N.) never really exits the story, but it’s as if the O.N. is an actor playing the role of the POV character.
#5. Closer still. I would change this to “Snow under his collar…” This could be second person POV, which I find a bit confusing in this example.
Also, if it were up to me, I’d collapse sentences 1 & 2, and 4 & 5 to make only three levels. But the levels are a bit arbitrary, and anyway, I think you get the idea. As we bring the character into sharper focus, the syntax changes and the tone feels livelier and more conversational…but also less trustworthy.
Now let’s see how John Williams uses narrative distance in his novel, Stoner. You can follow along with the sample on Amazon (but only if you want to).
Omniscient Set up
The opening consists of two paragraphs followed by a space which sets it off from the rest of the story:
“William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree…where he taught until his death in 1956.”
The first line sounds a lot like level #1 in Gardner’s example. Full name. University’s name. Year of matriculation. Age. It reads like non-fiction, maybe an obituary written by someone who didn’t know Stoner that well.
“He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his course.”
Definitely not non-fiction, and hopefully not an obituary. But the narration is still fairly distant, perhaps at a level between 1 and 2.
“An occasional student who comes across the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.”
These paragraphs never go beyond the 1-2 level or dip into Stoner’s POV. It’s a distancing effect, but one that sets things up efficiently. First of all, we learn that the story spans Stoner’s entire life because here we are looking back on it after his death. Which means Stoner can’t be narrating the story—this is a clue that the narration could be omniscient. What seals the deal is the narrator’s access to the occasional idly-wondering student and to Stoner’s colleagues. We never get a glimpse in any of their minds, nor do we see them externally from a particular character’s point of view, but we nevertheless get a clear sense of even the smallest of characters. Here Williams is harnessing the full power of omniscience; if anything deserves to be called god-like, this is it.
There’s also a clever hook in this opening: Stoner isn’t just un-spectacular, he’s conspicuously un-spectacular. We wonder why we’re reading about this forgettable man, what it is about his ordinary life that makes him worth reading about. There must be something…and maybe when we find out, we’ll learn what’s meaningful about our ordinary lives.
Going back to Gardner’s example, imagine moving from a narrative distance of #1 directly to #3: “It was the winter of 1833. A large man stepped out of a doorway. Henry hated snowstorms.” This feels awkward, amateurish. That’s because it’s a leap in narrative distance. The effect is like head hopping, but instead of hopping from character to character, it’s the O.N. suddenly deep diving into the character’s mind. There might be a time when just such a plunge is called for—just know it’ll make a loud splash.
By contrast, the effect in Stoner is quiet and steady, like a camera zooming in so slowly you don’t notice it’s zooming. That’s because Williams uses an intermediate level (or levels) of narrative distance, which he sustains for several pages:
“Though his parents were young at the time of his birth…Stoner thought of them, even when he was a boy, as old.”
“When he finished high school in the spring of 1910, he expected to take over more of the work in the fields; it seemed to him that his father grew slower and more weary with the passing months.”
Stoner thought…he expected…it seemed to him. These phrases, along with he wondered, he realized, and the like, are often referred to as thought tags. Some instructors will tell you to abolish thought tags from your writing, advice which goes hand-in-hand with “Show, Don’t Tell”. And yes, if your thought tags are doing nothing but cluttering up the page, obviously you should get rid of them (this is more likely to happen when you’re writing strictly in third person limited). But as Stoner demonstrates, thought tags aren’t always useless labels. In some cases they help readers differentiate between the thoughts of the narrator and those of the character. The distinction is made even clearer when the character is mistaken about something. “He expected to take over more of the work…” is a signal from the narrator that Stoner will not, in fact, be taking over the work. Perhaps more importantly, though, thought tags can also provide readers with an intermediate territory to inhabit, a stepping stone between distant omniscient and close third. (I suppose what I’m calling “intermediate territory” might sound more technical if I called it “indirect style,” in contrast to free indirect style, but I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of confusing terminology.)
The closer Stoner gets to the university, the closer we get to him, to his thoughts and feelings. Also, the thought tags “learned” and “aware” appear again and again. Most readers won’t notice the repetition, but they’ll feel the cumulative effect of those key words and sense that a momentous change in the main character is about to take place:
pg. 6: “He was aware that he had learned things he had not known before…(but) It was not until he returned for his second year that William Stoner learned why he had come to college.”
pg. 8: “Stoner was often aware that the image of this man had risen up before the eye of his mind…always on the threshold of his awareness waited the figure of Archer Sloane.”
There’s still a degree of distance from Stoner’s POV here; it’s still the omni narrator relating Stoner’s state of mind. This changes at the BIG moment of Stoner’s literary-spiritual awakening on page 10:
“William Stoner realized that for several moments he had been holding his breath. He expelled it gently, minutely aware of his clothing moving upon his body as his breath went out of his lungs. He looked away from Sloane about the room. Light slanted from the windows and settled upon the faces of his fellow students, so that the illumination seemed to come from within them and go out against a dimness; a student blinked, and a thin shadow fell upon a cheek whose down had caught the sunlight. Stoner became aware that his fingers were unclenching their hard grip on his desk-top. He turned his hands about under his gaze, marveling at their brownness, at the intricate way the nails fit into his blunt finger-ends; he thought he could feel the blood flowing invisibly through the tiny veins and arteries, throbbing delicately and precariously from his fingertips through his body [my emphases].
Sloane was speaking again. “What does he [Shakespeare] say to you, Stoner? What does his sonnet mean?”
The shift to level 4 happens at “light slanted”—we see the world as Stoner sees it, through his eyes. It’s not, “Stoner saw the light slanting…” The thought tags briefly disappear, then come back at: “Stoner became aware…he thought he could feel…”
But wait, are those really thought tags? It’s hard to say. They certainly aren’t mere labels. “He thought he could feel the blood flowing invisibly…” clarifies meaning, it expresses some doubt from Stoner’s perspective (does he really feel blood flowing, or is he imagining he feels it?). It’s a lucid description of Stoner becoming aware of his own perceptions and sensations, his own peculiar being, for the first time. Only distance can bring him this penetrating insight; it’s as if he’s suddenly become omniscient and is viewing himself through the stolid eyes of history, even while feeling the precariousness of his existence more keenly. These close-ups return throughout the novel, usually during those times when he escapes his daily woes to seek solace in academic tradition, and are leveraged for optimal impact.
Point of View vs. Narrative Distance
You’ve probably heard that omniscient POV is distancing, but a good choice for epic tales with millions of characters. Yet Stoner is far from being an epic tale. On the face of it, omniscience seems peculiar here, especially since the narration is focused almost solely on Stoner and rarely dips into anyone else’s POV. The novel might as well be in first person, one would think. Except here’s the thing—if it had been written in first person, or even in third person limited, it wouldn’t be the same story. In a limited POV, Stoner couldn’t transcend his ordinariness because he wouldn’t seem ordinary to begin with. It’s the difference between a novel about ordinary man and a novel starring a boring man. Omniscience is what’s needed to achieve a symbiosis of form and content. It might be possible to achieve a high level of narrative distance in first person, but here it wouldn’t have the same scope or feel.
Ideas on how first person POV might affect narrative distance? Do you have any insights or experiences to share on POV transitioning (of any sort)? Thoughts on any of it?